Tag Archives: conservation

Waste Not

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Many years ago, I was on vacation on a small Caribbean island. The hotel was new, and a man from one of the neighboring rooms found out just how new when he turned on the bathroom faucet, only to have the water run from the sink straight on to his feet. The drainpipe hadn’t been installed. He immediately turned off the faucet. Of course, he got a different room, because a hotel guest can’t be expected to find a pot for used sink water.

‘Like ancient pots spilled from a drowning ship, tube sponges bulge eerily’ (1993). Mixed media.
Artist: Panya Clark Espinal

I’ve been thinking about this story today, World Water Day. The theme this year is the importance of treating wastewater in the overall cycle of maintaining a viable freshwater supply. Currently, most wastewater around the world is allowed to flow untreated back into waterways, lakes, oceans and land. Not only is this a waste, but it contributes ever more to the pollution of existing freshwater supplies.

There are so many reasons we don’t properly treat wastewater, from lack of facilities and funding to the general human attitude towards natural resources: We assume they are virtually limitless until they are almost gone.

And so even those of us in regions with good access to water, and with advanced sewage treatment options lose sight of water’s value. We brush our teeth with the faucet open, we take long showers, we wash dishes with the water running, we use water-thirsty appliances, we irrigate recklessly, and still the water flows endlessly out of a faucet or a hose, to be magically whisked away by pipes to treatment plants most of us never see.

Like Ancient Pots spilled from a drowning ship, tube sponges bulge eerily (1993). Mixed media.
Artist: Panya Clark Espinal

We know there are areas where people stand in line for hours to get a bucket or container of water for cooking and bathing; we know there are places where there are no pipes to carry away sewage. One in ten people on the planet don’t have access to safe water or sanitary facilities. The rest of us open the faucet and let it flow.

Getting back to the hotel guest with the wet feet: If we all had to deal with the results of a running faucet and no potential for installing new pipes, would we be more attentive to how much water we use, and what we do with our used water before it drenches us?

 

Felling Heritage

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People used to intimately know places like the Bialowieza Forest, the last primeval forest in Europe, the wild places that made us what we are.

Now these place are relegated to small corners. They mainly inhabit our stories, little bits of baggage we carry with our culture through the millennia.

Traveling Landscapes.
Artist: Kathleen Vance

Spanning the border between Poland and Belarus, the Bialowieza forest is home to the Europe’s tallest trees and is a refuge to countless species of birds, mammals and invertebrates. Although not unaffected by war, especially during and after WWI when most of its native bison were exterminated, the forest has remained largely intact and untouched for over 10,000 years.

This is the kind of mixed forest and rich ecosystem that once covered most of Europe, and this last remnant of 140,000 hectares (540 sq. m.) was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1979.

It’s a living museum piece, a sprawling natural monument to the world as it was when humanity was young.

Traveling Landscapes.
Artist: Kathleen Vance

Now that humanity is more mature, we have nation-states and borders, and the forest that was once a free-roaming thing is considered the territory of one place or another, whether or not UNESCO, or the European Union, or environmental activists, consider it to belong to all of humanity and the world.

In this case, the fact that some of the Bialowieza Forest is on the Polish side of an international border is critical. After decades of protection and management, the Polish government approved a massive increase in logging in the forest. This logging would go far beyond forest management activities meant to control pests or promote growth – 180,000 cubic metres (6.4m cubic feet) of wood over ten years.

Bialowieza Forest.
Photo: Emily Sun

Ignoring arguments put forth by environmentalists, scientists, universities, NGOs and a petition signed by 160,000 Polish citizens, the Polish government won a victory this week in a court challenge that would have granted environmental NGOs the legal status to challenge decisions made by the Polish Environment Minister, and to demand further environmental impact reports.

The next step will be charges brought by the European Union and possible sanctions for the violation of Poland’s agreements under the Natura 2000 program.

But, as with all such procedures, these things take time. And any pristine area where logging commences is an area that will be irretrievably altered. Bit by bit, what was a rampant cathedral to pre-humanity wildness becomes a memory, a smaller place, diminished by our hunt for resources and the money they bring.

Will the Bialowieza Forest become just one more living place packed away and stored our collective human memory?

Traveling Landscapes.
Artist: Kathleen Vance

Clepsydra Elegy

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It should come as no surprise that one of the earliest tools humans used to tell time was water. After all, it’s what we are, what we need to live.

A clepsydra is an ancient clock system that, at its most basic, uses two bowls, one nested inside another. The outer bowl is filled with water; the empty inner bowl has a hole at the bottom which allows a controlled flow of water to seep in.

Ancient Persian clock in Qanats of Gonabad Zibad. Source: Maahmaah/Wikipedia

Ancient Persian clock in qanats of Gonabad, Zibad.
Source: Maahmaah/Wikipedia

Once the inner bowl has filled with water, it is emptied and placed on the surface of the water again until it sinks.

Timekeepers as early as 500 BC kept an eye on the water flowing from one bowl to another to determine fair distribution of irrigation resources between farmers (in ancient Persia, by using water channels known as qanats). Needless to say, the position of timekeeper was important, and subject to oversight by other village elders to ensure parity.

Ancient water clock used in qanat of gonabad 2500 years ago. Source: Maahmaah/Wikipedia

Ancient water clock used in qanat of Gonabad 2500 years ago.
Source: Maahmaah/Wikipedia

We’ve had a water clock of sorts on a planetary scale for as long as long as humans have recorded history, and beyond.

We call them glaciers. They rise, they retreat. The bowls are biggest at the two poles, and for the duration of what we know as human civilization, the Arctic and the Antarctic have been keeping time over the procession of the seasons and climate that have allowed our species to farm and flourish.

It’s only recently, over the past century or so, that we have realized these clocks are not static. They are what water always is: in a state of flux. We’ve known for decades that the melting of the ice at the two poles could spell a new era, one in which the inner bowl of the clepsydra stays submerged and our measure of time is changed.

The level of Arctic sea ice is, once again this year, at its lowest recorded level.

What we need, maybe, are more vigilant timekeepers.

Here’s one of my current playlist videos, performed against the backdrop of calving Arctic ice. An elegy is a lament for something that has already passed away – let’s do everything we can to work against that scenario for the Arctic.
Listen for the crash at the beginning:

 

Up Close and Personal

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It’s generally acknowledged that we are now officially in the midst of a major phase of extinction when it comes to plant and animal life on our home planet. Whether it’s called the Sixth, the Holocene or the Anthropocene Extinction, this wave of die-offs is the biggest in almost 70 million years, when three-quarters of all plant, animal and sea life perished in the Cretaceous-Tertiary Extinction.

Pangolin and Pangolin Man. Images of the pangolin keepers who rescue and rehabilitate pangolins, the most heavily trafficked mammal in the world, hunted for its meat and scales. Image: Adrian Steirn via Africa Geographic

Pangolin and Pangolin Man. Images of the pangolin keepers who rescue and rehabilitate pangolins, the most heavily trafficked mammal in the world, hunted for its meat and scales.
Image: Adrian Steirn

There are a couple of key differences between these two major extinction events.

For one thing, the earlier extinction is widely considered to be the result of a massive asteroid impact that had a series of long-lasting effects – but there is some disagreement on that origination story. Other causes could have been a series of volcanic eruptions, or climate change, or sea level change. At this great distance, we don’t know if it was one factor or a combination of factors. In any case, it was a planetary change caused by elements far beyond the control of the species that went extinct as well as those that survived.

This time around, we have a fairly clear idea of what is causing the current round of extinction, which is proceeding at a rate estimated at 140,000 species per year. That’s every year, not a cumulative number. Species are dying off at far higher rates than we can count them.

This time, we know that what’s causing this epic die-off is a combination of climate change, habitat loss, human impact in the form of hunting, industry and pollution.

Contrary to the last time around, this is no outside force: This time, a single species is having the impact of a major asteroid. Or a series of volcanic eruptions.

On a positive note, in the midst of all this, there is hope. As it turns out, when we put our collective mind to a task, we can turn the tide. New Chinese regulations banning the ivory trade, a crackdown on trafficking in pangolin products and a classification by the IUCN of the animals as extremely threatened, might well end up saving these animals from oblivion.

It’s the efforts of people on the ground, like the Pangolin Men and the Tikki Hywood Trust shown in these images by Adrian Steirn, that make the crucial difference. Coalitions of farmers and activists, municipal and state bans on the use of known insecticides or the promotion of green havens, big regulations combined with hands-on local work and dedication, it all counts.

We won’t save everything, but we can slow the rate considerably. Individual efforts can make a real difference.

What animal or plant will you help save today?

All photos used with the kind permission of Adrian Steirn.

Beneath the Sea

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It always counts as a surprise when we find out that unexpected networks have been operating right under our collective noses. We use the word ‘discovery’ to describe the newness to our understanding, even if, in retrospect, it might be a bit like describing a city’s take-out food delivery system as a ‘discovery’ just because no one had noticed a connection between all the scooters with restaurant names and the arrival of restaurant food at private homes.

The discovery, in this case, is something that makes a lot of sense: At least one kind of sea grass that flowers underwater manages to employ underwater pollinators in a manner similar to terrestrial flowering plants that use airborne pollinators like bees, bats and birds.

A meadow of Thalassia testudinum, turtlegrass. Photo: ICMyL via DGCS

A meadow of Thalassia testudinum, turtlegrass. Photo: ICMyL via DGCS

There aren’t many plants that actually flower under water – most produce their flowers above the water surface. Thalassia testudinum, known as turtlegrass, grows in large meadows, and produces small flowers near the seabed. The male flowers release pollen in the evening, and until now it was thought that the pollen was carried to female plants solely via water currents.

But a study published last fall in Nature Communications showed that there is another factor that increased the distribution of pollen. In a series of aquarium-based experiments, it was demonstrated that a variety of invertebrates, from spider crab larvae to tiny crustaceans to marine worms, are drawn to the male and female flowers, and these fauna were proven to fulfil the criteria of being characterized as pollinators* even in the absence of water flow.

The researchers from the National Autonomous University of Mexico state that that other, larger animals might also contribute to pollination, but that these were not included in this particular study. Unlike bees, there’s no hive or honey involved. But, like their terrestrial counterparts, the fauna here were attracted to the flowers for feeding, and moved between the blossoms in search of more food.

A male turtlegrass flower releases its nocturnal pollen. Photo: ICMyL via DGCS

A male turtlegrass flower releases its nocturnal pollen. Photo: ICMyL via DGCS

Look at the intelligence of turtlegrass. It has small flowers, and they aren’t packed densely together, waving in the breeze. Rather, they are close to the sea bed and spaced well apart. Relying solely on water flow to pollinate might not do the trick. Why not make the petals sticky and attractive to the myriad small creatures abundant in the water, and get them to do a bit of the heavy pollen lifting for extra evolutionary insurance?

I applaud lead researcher Brigitta van Tussenbroek and her research team for noticing and studying this fascinating network of activity, which they have given the name zoobenthophilous pollination, i.e. pollination carried out by animals close to the sea bed. The discovery of the role fauna play in underwater pollination could help better understand and protect these ecosystems, which, as van Tussenbroek and her colleagues state, “are amongst the world’s most productive ecosystems. (They) improve water transparency, stabilize coastlines and store carbon, and also provide food and shelter to a diverse faunal community.”

I have the feeling it may just be the beginning of a deeper understanding of many things that are right in front of us, but which we aren’t yet seeing. All it requires is a willingness to shift our perspective.

A female turtlegrass flower with visiting invertebrates, bits of pollen and sand. Photo: ICMyL via DGCS

A female turtlegrass flower with visiting invertebrates, bits of pollen and sand. Photo: ICMyL via DGCS

*From the study “Experimental evidence of pollination in marine flowers by invertebrate faunathe criteria for the animals to be considered pollinators are:

(1) both male and female organs (of the flowers) are visited, (2) the visitor carries pollen, (3) the visitor transfers pollen between male and female sexual organs, (4) pollen deposition by the visitor results in successful fertilization, estimated as pollen germination on the stigmas, pollen tube growth or seed set.

Frost Love Note

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View across the fields. Photo: PKR

View across the fields. Photo: PKR

The past few weeks have been a feast of fog and frost. Thick fog lingers, the moisture freezes to every surface outside, the world is held in suspension…and then a couple of rays of sunshine break through and within minutes, the hard days of frost quite literally evaporate.

I’ve a fondness for this season, a time in our area that finds many of our neighbors in a grey funk due to the lack of sunshine. Lucky me, I like the comforting uniformness of fog. The white ice sculptures that are still trees, blades of grass, fallen leaves make for excellent viewing, appearing as they do like still actors revealed by a slow-moving curtain.

Hoarfrost covers a plant as the sun comes out. Photo: PKR

Hoarfrost covers a plant as the sun comes out. Photo: PKR

But what I really like is how transient it is. Back and forth, we drift in and out of cracking white-in-grey days to brilliant sunshine without the deep commitment to winter that will come with the first deep snowfall. There’s nothing transient about two feet of snow, especially once it’s been shoveled from the paths and driveways into large piles. That frozen stuff will stay put for weeks, if not months.

Not this frost, though. It’s quick as a hot breath on a cold window. There just long enough write a quick love note…and gone.

A few minutes pass, and the plant is frost-free. Photo: PKR

A few minutes pass, and the plant is frost-free. Photo: PKR

Treehugger

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I spent a large portion of my youth in an untamed forest on the California coast–it was the 1970s, we lived off-grid, and our wood cabins were built in small clearings amidst bay trees, madrone, manzanita, and coast live oak. A fragrant forest of graceful limbs that rustled in gentle breezes and sang sharply during storms.

I was an avid reader of Greek mythology, of fairy tales, of the Lord of the Rings trilogy – all stories in which forests and trees play a major role, either as protagonists or settings. It was easy to believe in magic in a place like that.

It followed that I was obsessed with stories of wood creatures and trees that could communicate, and much like young readers of more recent generations waited for their letter from Hogwart’s, I waited for the trees to come to life and reveal themselves in a more human form, or at least to speak to me in a language I could understand.

Illustration for The Old Woman In The Wood, from Little brother & little sister and other tales by the Brothers Grimm (1917), by one of my favorite illustrators. Artist: Arthur Rackham

Illustration for The Old Woman In The Wood, from Little brother & little sister and other tales by the Brothers Grimm (1917), by one of my favorite illustrators. This tale is about a forest that saves a young woman from certain death–she in turn saves the trees by releasing them from long enchantment.
Artist: Arthur Rackham

That they never did start talking to me is probably for the best, and it didn’t diminish my affection. It’s long been accepted that they have their own way of communicating, even if it’s not in ways we can always interpret into human terms. I haven’t always been able to explain my deep affinity for forests, and even for specific trees, in a way that doesn’t sound a bit unbalanced, so it’s a joy to see a book like the one Peter Wohlleben wrote become so popular.

The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate — Discoveries From a Secret World has been on the bestseller lists for months in a variety of countries, including its native highly urbanized and industrialized Germany.

From a review in the New York Times: “Presenting scientific research and his own observations in highly anthropomorphic terms, the matter-of-fact Mr. Wohlleben has delighted readers and talk-show audiences alike with the news — long known to biologists — that trees in the forest are social beings. They can count, learn and remember; nurse sick neighbors; warn each other of danger by sending electrical signals across a fungal network known as the “Wood Wide Web”; and, for reasons unknown, keep the ancient stumps of long-felled companions alive for centuries by feeding them a sugar solution through their roots.”

With a training in forestry, which taught Mr. Wohlleben how to think of trees as machines and natural resources, years of close observation taught him something else: How to see trees as fellow travelers.

Maybe his ideas make sense to me because he and I are of the same age, or because we both grew up in forests and in a similar era of environmental thought. Whatever the reason, it does me good to see someone articulate what I suspected all along, back when I was just a sapling of a treehugger: There’s more to trees than meets the eye.

Deep Cuts

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One of the sharpest knives used to divide people and promote apathy is the instigation of the sense that nothing is shared across political or religious beliefs, that we are powerless, that we are isolated.

It’s a baffling fact that the issue of climate change, not to mention environmental policy and science in general, didn’t come up much during the recent presidential campaign in the United States. Mere days after the Paris climate agreement came into force on 4 November 2016, U.S. voters elected a man who has made plain his skepticism of climate science.

One of my favorite trees split down the middle last week. Photo: PKR

One of my favorite trees split down the middle last week, an apt metaphor for the current mood. Photo: PKR

There has been plenty written on the assembly of a new administration based on donor rewards and loyalty rather than expertise in a given field, but this is fairly standard practice; I won’t waste time here discussing the appointment of climate science skeptics. Debating whether climate change exists is like having an argument over whether  water is wet and having someone who wants to sell you ice insist that sometimes, when frozen, it isn’t. (To be as explicit as possible, if someone is denying climate change or climate science, there is a profit motive.)

More worrisome are statements that the new administration plans to distance itself from the climate agreement altogether in favor of expanding fossil fuel use, that funding for NASAs Earth-observation satellite project will be cut, and that environmental regulations will be rolled back in favor of promoting industry in the name of jobs as if the two ends – environmental protection and job creation – can’t be mutually beneficial.

There’s been a historical divide between those who consider themselves conservationists, i.e. those who see nature as a place of natural resources to be utilized, tended to and protected in the interests of humankind, and environmentalists, who tend to see any human impact on nature as something to be mitigated.

Whatever your inclination – and most of us fall somewhere on the spectrum between the two approaches – the fact is we share an interest in maintaining a clean water supply, an ecosystem that permits ongoing agriculture, breathable air and sustainable soil. Regardless of what you believe about climate science or your political stance, we are undeniably in the midst of radical climate change and a large-scale extinction that is unprecedented in the history of human civilization. Sure, the planet has undergone huge changes before, but not while we were trying to survive on it.

Photo: PKR

Photo: PKR

It’s no surprise that those of us who support action being taken to protect the environment, who are committed to working against extreme climate change and holding our governments accountable when it comes to protecting habitats, are profoundly dismayed.

We need to find common ground, we need to redouble our efforts, and not just with the people with whom we agree, but with those with whom we disagree on a variety of topics. We need to reach across divides at every level, especially where it’s not easy. This blog has always attempted to promote understanding and curiosity, to inspire hope and encourage action beyond just enjoying a good dram of whisky now and then.

There is so much opportunity for progress, and humans can be at their best when confronted with adversity.

Looking Forward, Looking Back

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Taken by Apollo 8 crewmember Bill Anders on December 24, 1968, while in orbit around the Moon, showing the Earth rising for the third time above the lunar horizon. Via: NASA

Taken by Apollo 8 crewmember Bill Anders on December 24, 1968, while in orbit around the Moon, showing the Earth rising for the third time above the lunar horizon.
Via: NASA

We were recently at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, where we viewed an exhibition called You Say You Want A Revolution. It was a compilation of materials and installations that illustrated the upheaval in popular culture and music from 1966-70, and asked whether they impacted the way we live today and think about the future.

I was young but I remember that era well. There was a fire and passion to break down the stagnant structures of the past, to imagine a new future that respected people of all stripes and persuasions.

From the wall of the museum exhibition: "The space programme, which was meant to show mankind that its home was only its cradle, ended up showing that its cradle was its only home. It was the defining moment of the twentieth century." By: Robert Poole, Earthrise (2008)

From the wall of the museum exhibition: “The space programme, which was meant to show mankind that its home was only its cradle, ended up showing that its cradle was its only home. It was the defining moment of the twentieth century.”
By: Robert Poole, Earthrise (2008)

Some of the most important images of that era were taken from space, from missions to the moon. The space program was an immense achievement – but what happened with the astronauts looked over their shoulders was just as relevant. What they saw behind them, for the first time in human history, was our planet, a jewel floating in space.

I remember being impressed and inspired by these images as a young person. We were worried about ideologically-driven nuclear war, about over-population. My first published piece of writing was a letter to the editor of Co-Evolution Quarterly, offering to go live in off-planet space colonies if it would help save the Earth. I was thirteen, and filled with sense of solidarity with both the planet, and with my fellow humans.

The painting of the interior of a "Model III" cylindrical Space Colony. Artist: Don Davis

The painting of the interior of a “Model III” cylindrical Space Colony.
Artist: Don Davis

I had hoped to be writing this post with a renewed sense of enthusiasm, and instead find myself writing it to discourage any slide into despair. It seems in our fear and insecurity at where our institutions have taken us, we are drawing lines between each other, ever deeper in the sand and in minds, when we can and must reach across them if we are to keep this planet a place where we can thrive.

I offer this as a reminder that we are all in this together, all of us, every living creature. More than ever, globalization shows us how small this place is that we call home. Too small to be distracted by hate, by squabbling over borders that are, in the truest sense, imaginary creations on a little planet. We quite literally all breathe the same air, drink the same water, tread the same soil.

The science-fiction dreams of green, forested space colonies are unattainable imitations of what we have right here. When you look at the image below, you won’t see any borders, and like it or not, it’s what we all share.

Let’s look forward at the big picture, insist on working together rather than against each other, to take whatever size steps we can, to take care of one another and our home. Let’s listen through the yelling and find common ground.
These days, finding common ground with those on the other end of a belief spectrum feels revolutionary — yet whether we acknowledge it or not, we all share more than divides us. Let’s get to work.

The Blue Marble—Earth as seen by Apollo 17 in 1972. Via: NASA/Wikipedia

The Blue Marble—Earth as seen by Apollo 17 in 1972.
Via: NASA/Wikipedia

Fewer Footprints

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When we were out on the Pacific Coast in California a couple of weeks ago, two things in particular caught my attention:

One was the lack of shorebirds, the skittering types that chase waves and scurry in tight huddles. Maybe it was just the wrong season. There were signs posted indicating that snowy plovers were nesting in the dunes, although we didn’t see any from the waterline where we walked. The estuary between Limantour Beach and Drakes Beach holds a diverse population of wild birds, so maybe we were just unlucky or unobservant.

Photo: PKR

Photo: PKR

While there were seagulls, great egrets and turkey vultures–we even saw a red-tailed hawk diving for fish and carrying off a squirming catch–we saw a sum total of five sandpipers.

Researchers only really started noticing a general decline in shorebirds around twenty years ago, when counting got underway in earnest. It’s hard to know just how much the populations have declined – but I can say that compared to when I visited my favorite beaches thirty years ago, the number of birds has dropped dramatically. There were far fewer footprints in the sand from birds than I remember from my youth.

Photo: PKR

Photo: PKR

There are a number of reasons for the decline in shorebird and migratory bird populations. Loss of migratory habitat has to be the most relevant. There’s just so much more land development and reclamation along coastlines and wetland areas, the very places the great internationalist shorebirds stop to rest, to eat, to breed.

Another aspect, though, is the amount of plastic in our seas.

Birds eat plastic, presumably because it looks like food, and can end up starving to death with a belly full of plastic. Between 60-90% of birds in shoreline regions have been found to have plastic in their bellies. At this point, it’s probably more surprising to find a bird without plastic in its stomach.

Which brings me to the other thing that caught our attention on our numerous beach walks:

An estuary tree blooms with great herons. Photo: PKR

An estuary tree blooms with great herons.
Photo: PKR

Back in the 1980s, when there were more birds, I also used to notice large pieces of junk on the beach. Wrecked picnic coolers, plastic containers, styrofoam appliance packing, plastic bottles galore. This time, there were very few pieces of large plastic. This might be a positive side of the recycling movement.

Microplastics. Photo: Puget Sound We Love You

Microplastics.
Photo: Puget Sound We Love You

What I did notice, however, were countless pieces of plastic flakes that looked almost like shell flotsam, the kind that’s always there in a receding tide. Except the flakes were all the wrong colors. Blue, bright green, pink. And such an edible size for smaller animals.

Today is World Oceans Day. The focus of this year’s awareness is plastic in oceans.

The next time you take another plastic bag for produce, or buy a plastic box of cut vegetables instead of cutting them yourself, or throw away plastic in general, think of where it might end up. Even if you live far from the sea, chances are, at least some of that plastic will end up in a waterway, and at some point, in an ocean.